As distilleries grow in number around Western New York, each newcomer feels pressure to fill a niche within the industry. For Lockhouse, it was a grape-based vodka with killer design. For Buffalo Distilling Co., it was the area's first bourbon and edgy branding.
We sent a few questions over to Matthew Pelkey, co-founder of Black Squirrel Distillery (1595 Elmwood Ave.) and a lawyer by trade, who discussed his responses with partners Brian Fending, a local product development guru, and Jason Schwinger, owner of BFLO Harbor Kayak, before replying.
The interview below sheds light on the Black Squirrel's operation, the flavors of the first spirit as well as the harrowing, rodent-focused back-story behind the distillery's name.
Buffalo.com: As Buffalo’s third distillery since Prohibition, Black Squirrel has the opportunity to help set the standard for the industry’s re-emergence locally. What were a few of the pros and cons of getting into the distillery business?
Matthew Pelkey: Starting any business is difficult. Of course, one that is as heavily regulated as a distillery presents particularly unique challenges. This takes time, patience, and ultimately costs money. That last one is certainly a barrier to entry. I think you've nailed one of the benefits, though: the opportunity to set the standard not only for a product, but for an industry.
We join our friends at Lockhouse Distillery and Buffalo Distilling Company in helping to set that standard, and that opportunity doesn't often come along. There is also a tremendous amount of satisfaction in creating a tangible craft product that people enjoy!
BDC: Speaking to craft brewers & Lockhouse, the production of raw materials (hops, spent grains, grapes, even sugars, etc.) is kind of sparse in Western New York. Did that force you to be creative when coming up with your plan?
Pelkey: We wanted to make rum and sugar cane doesn't grow in New York, so we had to get creative. I think that is one of the benefits to farm licenses - it incentivizes companies to work with agricultural products that they maybe would have otherwise overlooked. Not only does this create a better product, but it also supports agriculture across New York. For us, we ended up using maple syrup and creating something truly unique.
BDC: Other than maple syrup on pancakes and those cute little maple-syrup candies, you don’t see many other uses of for a product that New York State does well. What prompted you to use maple syrup as a major element in your first spirit? Where exactly are you sourcing it from?
Pelkey: It was a solution to a problem, one that we feel results in an even better product. After all, there is a reason people put maple on their pancakes! We use a considerable amount of maple, so we source ours from a number of maple farms, including Wendel Maple Farm (in East Concord) and the New York Maple Exchange. It's technically not a rum by federal (TTB) definitions. It's Black Squirrel. It’s hard to put a label on us.
BDC: Are the fermenting and distilling processes any different with maple sugar vs. cane sugar?
Pelkey: It’s pretty similar, actually. Our process simulates the conditions in which rum is traditionally made. From the conditions of the yeast to the copper it gets distilled in, and the barrels it gets aged in. It's not easy, it costs a little more, it takes a little longer, but good things come to those that wait!
BDC: How would you describe the spirit’s taste?
Pelkey: It is important to emphasize that it is made from maple syrup, not maple syrup flavored. Unless you mix it with maple syrup, you will not be reminded of the pancakes you had for breakfast. You will get a very subtle sweetness on the front of your palate with a complex, oaky, clean finish on the back. We compare it to premium aged rum. Some customers say it reminds them of a fine bourbon or whiskey.
BDC: The Black Squirrel story is equal parts amusing, terrifying and intriguing. How did that story evolve into the brand’s name?
Pelkey: The product was the brainchild of our partner, Jason Schwinger. He's equal parts creative genius, Hunter Thompson and a historian. The story is based largely on the Hartmann family, Jason's great-grandmother's experiences during Prohibition in particular, as well as the migratory patterns of the black squirrel from Canada during Prohibition. I think the story does a good job of toeing that line! Black Squirrel is ultimately both a nod to both tradition and innovation…with all of us being just a tad bit nuts.
BDC: What are the future plans in terms of selling bottles? Is there a schedule of open hours, or will there be more special weekend events?
Pelkey: We will be releasing 200 more bottles on from noon to 6 p.m. March 7 at the distillery. Once we sell out, we will again convert to a speakeasy serving cocktails, wine and cider products. From noon to 4 p.m. March 22 we will be at Wendel Maple Farm in East Concord celebrating Maple Weekend with tastings and retail. The plan is to release product every two weeks for now, and host private events for anyone who would like to schedule one. Reach out to us if you are interested!
[Read Samantha Christmann's story on Black Squirrel's official opening from Feb. 20]